January 15, 2010: Over the last year, China has made a major effort to protect adult Internet users from pornography, and children on the Internet from, well, everything. In that time, China has closed over 15,000 websites it considered pornographic. In doing this, over 1.5 million images, videos and other items were removed from the Internet. Over 5,000 people were arrested, and over 1,500 were prosecuted.
As for the children, well, last May, the government notified all companies selling computers in China that, as of July 1st, they had to install new filtering software (called "Green Dam Youth Escort"). This was mainly an effort to prevent Chinese, especially children, from having access to pornography, although Green Dam could be used to block anything. Green Dam basically controlled Internet access to the PC it was installed on. Green Dam checked with a government database (of banned web sites) before allowing the user to actually visit any site. This would make it more difficult to get around existing Internet censoring efforts. The government already does this via its Great Firewall of China (officially the "Golden Shield") system, that filters, and eavesdrops on, Internet traffic coming into, and leaving, China. Actually, Golden Shield is more about controlling what is said by Internet users inside China, than in controlling what they have access to outside China. This effort leads to unexpected abuses. For example, last year a senior official (Yu Bing) of the Golden Shield operation was arrested for taking over $5 million in bribes to help one anti-virus software company put a rival out of business. The rival fought back in the courts, and exposed the corruption within Golden Shield.
Green Dam was a different kind of corruption. Manufacturers protested that there was not sufficient time to install filtering software. There is apparently a lot more misbehavior going on with Chinese efforts to control the Internet, and the Green Dam project seems to be another example of this. That's because within a few weeks of the Green Dam announcement, an American software publisher, Solid Oak Software, accused the Chinese of theft. Turns out Green Dam is based on the Solid Oak product Cybersitter software, and there's plenty of incriminating evidence in the Green Dam code. This case continues, with recent accusations that the Chinese government has been using hackers to gain an edge in the litigation.
But wait, there's more. Many of the 300 million Chinese Internet users got uncharacteristically vocal about using Green Dam in an attempt to shut down access to pornography (and who knows what else.) The uproar was so great, that the government announced, four weeks after the initial Green Dam order went out, that it was all a misunderstanding. Green Dam could be turned off by the PC user, and the government just wanted to make sure everyone had access to it. The only objective here was to give parents a way to keep pornography from their kids. The government still insisted that all PCs shipped after July 1st would have Green Dam installed. The government backed off, but is still trying to get Green Dam installed in PCs used in schools or Internet Cafes.
The Green Dam project appears, to many Chinese, as yet another government attempt to control their lives. Two decades of rapid economic growth has left millions of Chinese willing to talk back to the communist police state that still rules the country. The government officials who created Green Dam are apparently surprised as the intensity of the public response, especially as it comes at the same time as the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital. This time, the protests are on the Internet, and the government doesn't know where to send the troops and tanks.